Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Roger Ebert

It is a strange thing that Roger Ebert has passed away. Now he and Gene Siskel are both gone, and gone with them one of the cultural touchstones of growing up in the 80s and 90s, the two-thumbs-up movie era.

Truth be told, I never really looked for Ebert's reviews or intentionally tuned into his tv show. His name and the general direction of his thumb was always out there when new blockbusters hit the theaters, but if I heard his opinion it was probably by chance. In the last ten years or so, if I were looking for a film review to read it would have been the razor-sharp, often brilliant reviews of Anthony Lane at The New Yorker, who really is in a class by himself. (Read, for instance, Lane's dismantling of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.)

But in the year 2000 I discovered the political side of Roger Ebert, which has been remembered with fondness in many of his obituaries. In December of that year, Ebert wrote a column about the contested election in Florida for his paper, the Chicago Sun-Times. Not pulling any punches, he titled it: "GOP Won By Planting Seeds of Deception." Here is part of his diagnosis of the result:
Bush became the "winner" of a dead heat, in the midst of an incomplete recount, when a premature victory was declared on her own unnecessary deadline by his Florida campaign co-chairwoman, who also held the crucial post of secretary of state. Once this bogus "certification" was final (Ms. Harris signing several copies on TV, including a valuable souvenir for herself), the Republicans referred to it endlessly as a valid event, even though it was clearly a shameless ploy to slam the door before the election escaped. A meme was born.
That was one of many instances in which Ebert interrupted his film column and his newspaper blog to offer political commentary. He spoke out on climate change and on LGBT rights. In October 2009, when the health care fight was at a fever pitch and scare mongering on the right was at a McCarthy-like level of deception, Ebert penned a column called "The Anger of the Festering Fringe," taking aim at the paranoid right wing that was hijacking American political discourse in their fanatical opposition to Obama:
Racism plays a role, but conspiracy theories themselves have an addictive quality. They appeal to a personality type. Many of those who take nourishment from them have, I suspect, a bitter resentment against authority. They don't want anyone telling them what to do. They're defiant. Anyone who is in power is lying to them for evil motives. Nothing they learn from the mainstream media can be trusted. Some people may think they're so smart -- but these conspiracy insiders know the real story. They learn it from each other, they embellish it, they pass it around, they "document" it with invented connections, they bond among themselves, and they live in a closed system that seems to validate them.

They lack common sense. Their conspiracy theories cannot tolerate it. Most reasonable people, when they heard Obama wanted to kill their grandmother, simply smiled, because -- well, because they knew he didn't. But the conspiracy people Know Better. That's the whole point. That's where the fun comes in. They have a peculiar intensity in their circular reasoning. They cite facts that are not facts, supported by authorities who are not authorities. As my grandmother freely said of perhaps too many people, "They don't have the sense God gave them."
There are, I imagine, a fair number of people who would be outraged that a film critic would dare to publish political commentary—"By what right?!" and "He's abusing his position!," etc. etc. Those are failed arguments. Ebert knew that in a democracy, we are all obliged to speak out when we recognize the poison in our politics. For my money, Ebert's political columns were the best writing he produced.

1 comment:

  1. I find it such a compelling (and obvious) irony that he truly "found his voice" as a writer after he literally lost his voice. A shame he's gone.